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Black Bear

Fact File

Scientific Name: Ursus americanus americanus

Classification: Mammal

Conservation Status:

  • There are approximately 900,000 black bears in North America.

Life Span: Bears may live up to 30 years in the wild. The oldest documented wild female bear in Virginia was 30 years of age when it was killed and the oldest male was 25.

Habitat: Incredibly adaptable, black bears occupy a greater range of habitats than any bear in the world. Bear home ranges must include food, water, cover, denning sites and diverse habitat types. Although bears are thought to be a mature forest species, they often use a variety of habitat types. Black bears can be found all along the Appalachian Mountains, in the Piedmont area, as well as sporadically along the coast. They prefer habitat that provides cover, such as a densely wooded mature oak forests or swampy area in the coastal plain, and easily accessible food resources.

Distribution: The American black bear is found only in North America. Black bears historically ranged over most of the forested regions of North America, and significant portions of northern Mexico. There are approximately 900,000 black bears in North America. Black bears reside in every province in Canada except for Prince Edward Isle, and in at least 40 of the 50 states in the US. In the eastern United States, black bear range is continuous throughout New England but becomes increasingly fragmented from the mid-Atlantic down through the Southeast.

Identifying Characteristics

Of the three bear species (black, brown, and polar bears) in North America, only the black bear lives in Virginia. Shy and secretive, the sighting of a bear is a rare treat for most Virginians. However, bears are found throughout most of the Commonwealth, and encounters between bears and people are increasing. A basic understanding of bear biology and implementing a few preventative measures will go a long way to helping make all encounters with bears positive.

Adult black bears are approximately 4 to 7 feet from nose to tail, and two to three feet high at the withers. Males are larger than females. Black bears have small eyes, rounded ears, a long snout, large non retractable claws, a large body, a short tail, and shaggy hair. In Virginia most black bears are true black in color unlike black bears found in more western states that can be shades of red, brown or blond. The muzzle is brown and there is an occasional white chest blaze.

Depending on the time of year, adult female black bears commonly weigh between 90 to 250 pounds. Males commonly weigh between 130 to 500 pounds. The largest known wild black bear was from North Carolina and weighed 880 pounds. The heaviest known female weighed 520 pounds from northeastern Minnesota.

Solitary or Social?

Black bears are generally solitary, except females caring for cubs. Adult bears may be seen together during the summer breeding period and occasionally yearling siblings will remain together for a period of time. On rare occasions, yearling bears may even stay with the adult female until the next denning season. Bears may also gather at places with abundant food sources.

Daily Activity Time

Black bears are typically crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), but can be active any time of day, particularly if there are food resources nearby.

Movements

Female black bears have smaller home ranges (1 to 50 square miles) than males (10 to 290 square miles). A male’s home range may overlap several female home ranges. Bears may move further in times of less food like early spring or during poor mast crop years. Dispersing yearlings, especially males, looking for new home ranges may also travel a great distance. Adult bears have been known to travel over 95 miles in a year, and will occasionally mark trees with their claws, especially during the breeding season.

Breeding and Cubs

Five-day old black bear cub. Photo by Mike Vaughan, VT.

Female black bears mature as early as three years old. Breeding occurs from mid-June to mid-July, but in the eastern deciduous forest, mating season can extend into August. Female black bears usually breed every other year and cubs are born from early January to mid-February. The cubs are born very nearly hairless and weigh 6-12 ounces (less than a pound!). Anywhere from 1-4 cubs are born at a time and are raised by their mother for about 1½ years. They are able to leave the den with the adult female in the spring and they disperse during their second spring. First-year cub mortality rates are about 20%, primarily due to predation (foxes, coyotes, dogs, bobcats, other bears), abandonment by their mother, or displacement. Adult bears do not have natural predators except humans.
When the mother is ready to breed again, she will send her yearlings to fend for themselves during the summer months when food is usually abundant. Always hungry, these yearling bears, particularly the males, will seek easy sources of food. The ability to access human related food sources can spell trouble for these bears.

Denning

Bears may feed up to 20 hours per day, accumulating fat (energy) prior to winter denning. An adult male can gain over 100 pounds in a few weeks when acorn production is heavy. Depending on weather and food conditions, black bears enter their winter dens between October and January. In Virginia, most bears in mountainous areas den in large, hollow trees. Other den types include fallen trees, rock cavities, and brush piles in timber cut areas, open ground nests, and man-made structures (e.g., culvert pipe, firewood lean-to, etc.). Dens are usually lined with a bed of leaf litter and they have been found up to 96 feet above the ground ( they are good climbers.)

Bears will not eat, drink, urinate or defecate while denning. Bears are easily aroused and may be active during warm winter days. On occasion they may venture from their dens, walk about, and return to denning. They emerge from their dens from mid-March to early May.

Mange and Black Bears

Mange in Virginia Bears

Virginia’s first mange-affected bear was diagnosed in a bear from Rockingham County in 1994. Since 2014, reports of bears with mange have increased in number and geographic spread.

What is Mange?

Mange is a highly contagious skin disease, caused by a mite, which affects many wild and domestic mammals. DWR is actively working to understand the disease and the mite that is causing this disease in Virginia’s bear population. Results to date indicate that the most common cause of mange in Virginia bears is Sarcoptes scabiei, which is a mite that burrows into the skin and can only be seen with the assistance of a microscope.

Transmission

Currently, there are many unknowns related to the occurrence and spread of mange in bears. Research efforts are underway to understand these processes. Mites can transfer to a new host when an unaffected animal comes into direct physical contact with an infested host. In addition, mites that fall off an infested host can persist in the environment and may infect a new animal that enters a site contaminated with mange mites.

Because bears are relatively solitary, the biggest risk for environmental transmission likely occurs under conditions where they congregate, either naturally (e.g., dens) or unnaturally (e.g., garbage cans, bait piles, bird feeders and other food resources).

Clinical Signs

The clinical signs of mange are a result of damage to the host’s skin by the burrowing mite, the immune reaction of the host’s body to the mite, and the physical tears in the skin that occurs through scratching. Clinical signs include:

  • Intense itching
  • Hair loss
  • Thickened, dry skin covered by scabs or tan crusts
  • Altered behavior (unaware or not concerned with their surroundings)

The extent of these clinical signs is variable, ranging from hairless areas on the ears and face or small patches along the body in mild to moderate cases, to hair loss and lesions covering almost the entire body in severe cases. Severely affected bears are typically emaciated, depressed, and often found wandering apparently unaware of their surroundings.

Although mange can be a cause of mortality in Virginia black bears, there is no evidence that the disease is currently limiting populations in any part of the state.

What is the DWR Doing in Response to Mange?

The DWR mission is to promote wildlife and human health and safety through science-based techniques. Our focus is on animal welfare, monitoring the impacts of mange on bear populations, and minimizing potential disease transmission.

What You Can Do to Prevent the Spread of Mange

Mange is spread by direct contact with infested animals and through the sharing of feed, objects, habitat, or areas used by infested animals. You can help reduce the spread of mange by minimizing the congregation of bears (and other animals) by following these simple rules:

  • Discontinue feeding birds, deer, feral cats, or other wildlife. If mange infested bears have been reported in the area, stop feeding pets outside and/or pick up the uneaten food.
  • Move outside garbage or compost containers into a shed, garage, or other inaccessible location or prevent access with electric fencing.

More Information

Visit DWR’s Wildlife Disease page for more information or download the Black Bear Mange brochure.

Last updated: November 2, 2020